The Walk of Shame: Why Rejection Is the Lifeblood of #StartupPR

The Walk of Shame: Why Rejection Is the Lifeblood of #StartupPR

We all know what rejection feels like in our personal lives. The guy (or gal) you’re interested in - just isn’t interested in you- or is way interested in someone else. OR you get denied for a loan. OR the job you wanted doesn’t come through. (You catch my drift.)

And while I’d love to be able to tell none of those things have ever happened to me, I’d be lying and this would be a terrible blog post on overcoming rejection, wouldn’t it?

See the thing is, in the startup space, you hear ‘No’ more than ’Yes’. And that’s ok because it’s part of an important learning curve. In the end, you’ll be better for it. Let me explain.

Make sure you fit in your britches

Being ‘too big for your britches’ is an an old fashioned expression my father used to use still uses on me anytime my ego gets too big. Founding a startup requires passion, persistence and eternal optimism to survive. You’re constantly networking, promoting and selling the company and it’s long-term vision, which can naturally lead to what, my friends? An over-inflated sense of accomplishment.

Combine that ego with a healthy dose of rejection (denied funding, passed on for media coverage or worse yet: a client prospect says ‘no’) and it’s possible you’ll spend the day either (a) with your self-esteem in the gutter, or (b) in a fit of denial / rage. Ben Horowicz called this up-down cycle The Struggle. Emotional whiplash at it’s finest.

It doesn’t feel great, but whatever you do - don’t let your ego get in the way of acknowledging rejection happens to everyone. No one is spared.

TIP: Accept the fact that rejection is part of business. And move on.

Don’t take it personally. It’s not ‘you’ they’re ‘not into.’

Our team at Onboardly represents some of the fastest growing and most exciting startups in North America and Europe. So naturally when we pitch a journalist, publication or collaborator on a win-win idea to help those clients get exposure and they (GASP) say no - we’re shocked and appalled.

But not really. See here’s the thing. It’s 2014 and people are busier than ever. Time has never been a more precious commodity. A ton of factors contribute to a ‘no’ - including relevance, timeliness and million other swirling external forces absolutely not related to you whatsoever. By reminding yourself it’s not personal, you’ll be prepared to attempt lemonade out of those inevitable lemons. Ask the person rejecting your pitch or opportunity for advice on the best way to tackle your approach next time. If it’s just a timing issue - starting that dialogue might put things on the table for a later date.

TIP: See every ‘no’ as an opportunity for a future yes. Ask for feedback and stay in touch.

Use failures to drive successes

In the PR world, there are several categories of rejection. Each one offers a different level of insight on ways you can improve. Allow me to explain. (Maybe you’ve experienced some of these?)

The ‘Yes, But…’

As the kindest, gentlest form of rejection the ‘Yes, But…’ is the closest you’ll get to a yes. It either means you’ve got the right pitch but the timing is off, or it means your pitch needs a bit of refinement but the idea is solid. Work on adjusting the approach right away, either scheduling a better time to discuss the idea or repositioning the pitch to get it right the second time. If you move quickly, you’ll still be top of mind and turn it into a win.

The ‘Not Interested’

Use the ‘Not Interested’ as a way to better get to know a journalist or influencer. They’ve said no - but the fact they took the time to reply usually means that they respect the time you took to reach out, but it’s just not for them. Use this opportunity to reply and ask a few key questions. Usually I’ll look for feedback on the pitch and for permission to contact them in the future.

The ‘Ignore’

The ‘Ignore’ usually goes one of two ways. It’s either (a) a bad time, or (b) a bad pitch. Bad timing is somewhat avoidable by proactively monitoring for journalists looking for stories. You can also subscribe to tools like HARO, monitor Twitter or get to know a journalists publication schedule. Bad pitches, on the other hand, are inexcusable. Do you homework and make sure you’re targeting the right person for the right topic.

The ‘Unsubscribe’

The ultimate learning opportunity, the ‘Unsubscribe’ is a classic response to a pitch gone bad. Funny story: once in our early days we received a response from a journalist that simply read: “I do not, in fact, care.” Yikes. I share this flub up to merely illustrate that even the pros can mess up. The truth is - we were stretching. Upon further reflection - it’s no wonder he didn’t care. The topic wasn’t part of his beat.

Not every journalist is going to have capacity to cover your startup, or is even going to care. Understanding the different forms of rejection (especially via email) is a measurable way to track your efforts. Make sure you improve your approach over time.

TIP: Keep a log of every pitch you send and use the system above to classify the response (or lack thereof). Aim to see more Yesses, ‘Yes, But...’s’ and less ‘Unsubscribes.’

When you fail, humility trumps all.

Running a startup requires a certain ego component, but in the end - if you mess up - humility always wins. A few years ago a client of ours got hit with a pretty nasty creative commons infringement letter from Getty Images about an image I inadvertently misused for a contributed post. An honest mistake, but a $1200 one I won’t soon forget. Instead of skirting the issue and/or trying to sweep it under the rug, I immediately got on the phone with both Getty and the client to take full responsibility. They reduced the fee because I was so quick to act and we paid it without question.

You’re bound to make mistakes in business (and in life) - when you do, be swift in owning up to them. It’ll go a long way towards building rapport in the long run, and I bet you won’t make the same mistake twice. 😉

Stay on the horse - you’ve got a long road ahead

While it’s easy to let rejection get you down, resist the urge to throw in the reins and hop off the saddle. If entrepreneurship were easy, everyone would be doing it. Learn to understand that rejection isn’t personal - and find ways to use the occasional kick in the pants to do better work.

Have an awesome rejection story? Found a way to overcome ‘The Struggle’? I’d love to see some honest dialogue in the comments. If we get a banter going, I’ll share some more of mine.

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What do you think?


Incredible post. Rejection is indeed the best learning experience one gets in life. To be honest, I felt very bad initially when I was rejected, but eventually it made me better.

Rejection is always for a reason, and our job is to find that reason and work on it.

Sometimes, people just reject us, but as you said, it shouldn’t be taken personally. Moving on is the best thing and necessity to do in any business.

P.S. I found this post on Kingged.


I think this is wonderful post and inspiring also. Failure is inevitable, but being able to cope with failure is one of the biggest life lessons we can learn in this life. While some people are disoriented and depressed by failure, it makes other people stronger. What’s success without a little failure, right? We all need that balance between struggle and success. It in this we are the happiest in life.